The title of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s newest documentary is intentionally provocative, if there was any doubt. And before you start reeling off professional funnymen and women working in comedy today who are hilarious, know that Zweig doesn’t have pros in mind when he argues that Jewish people aren’t as funny as they used to be.
“Jewish comedians are probably as funny as Jewish comedians were, but your average Jew sitting around a restaurant is not as funny as their grandparents were,” said Zweig during an interview to promote the film, which is currently showing at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Why has the level of humour slipped over the years, according to Zweig?
“Because they’re successful and complacent and assimilated, and their grandparents were immigrants and freaked out and sad and had a strong connection to life’s disappointments,” he says.
Zweig’s previous documentaries, including Vinyl, about record collectors, and I, Curmudgeon, have been explorations that are as much about himself as they are about anyone else. Now 61 and clearly feeling the pull of nostalgia and the religion he was born into, he may have made his most personal film yet with When Jews Were Funny.
In attempting to explain the roots of Jewish humour and what makes it unique, the film features interviews with a wide range of well-known comedians and uses archival footage of legends such as Jackie Mason. It’s formless and meandering, and covers familiar territory. But it’s engaging to watch Zweig grapple with his interview subjects as he struggles to make sense of the film’s many questions: Is there a brand of humour distinctly Jewish? What is it about Judaism that produces comedy? And yes, are Jewish people less funny than earlier generations?
Some interview subjects, such as Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Osborne) are openly dismissive toward Zweig. Others offer more thoughtful responses. Marc Maron, famous as the host of his comedy podcast, WTF, offers an insightful analysis of Zweig’s lament, saying that the filmmaker simply wants the comfort of the stereotype of the old kvetching Jewish relative. Howie Mandel argues that Jewish people are still grappling with the same neuroses as always, it’s just that the accent is gone.
The argument that humour is born of suffering is a familiar one. But it is not sufficient to explain Jewish humour, Zweig says. “By that token we should be dominated by First Nations comics,” he says.
Instead, it’s a combination of suffering and a religious tradition, Zweig argues. “It’s a connection between the suffering and then the encouragement of the religion to question things,” he says.
Zweig’s documentary clearly feels that something important is being lost in what he sees as the effects of success and assimilation on Jewish humour. But don’t think he’d rather have misery for the hilarity it might instill.
“I’m happy for Jews that they’ve succeeded,” he says. “But how can you be doing that well for that many generations and still have that thing?”